A look at the winners taught us that a few early-round losses are OK, because getting the Final Four and championship game correct is significantly more important. While the best brackets of the past seven years have averaged just around 25 points in the first round, those missed points are easily made up for in future rounds. Getting a national champion correct is 32 points, and it’s 16 each for having the right teams in the game.
So, when filling out your bracket, it’s good to not get too caught up in the first-round upset picks. But when thinking about Final Four picks, what should you look for?
Take a look at the below chart, which detail the frequency of seeds making the Final Four, championship game and winning the national championship.
Note: The data goes back to 1985, when the tournament was expanded to 64 teams.
Here are some takeaways from the data:
No. 1 seeds are No. 1 seeds for a reason.
Of the 33 champions since 1985, 20 of them are No. 1 seeds. Eight of the past 11 title winners have come from the top line. As crazy as March can be, the best teams of the regular season have the most success in the postseason.
Crazy upsets stick in our minds. They are some of the most memorable moments of the tournament and will show up on “One Shining Moment,” but even if a top seed is eliminated early, there are most likely three left.
A No. 1 seed has never lost in the first round. So, if you are going to pick a No. 1 seed to go down before the Final Four, it's better to do it in the Elite Eight than early.
But, expect at least some of the unexpected.
Even with the successes of No. 1 seeds in the Final Four and championship game, there has only been one Final Four in which all four top seeds from the field made it: 2008, when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA were all there.
Other than that, three No. 1 seeds have made it just five times. Final Fours have had slightly more 2, 3 and 4 seeds (56) than 1 seeds (54). It's good to keep an eye out for a potential powerhouse from those seed lines.
Picking a Cinderella to go to the Final Four probably isn’t worth it
It’s happened a few times. Three No. 11 seeds went to the Final Four -- 1986 LSU, 2006 George Mason, and 2011 VCU. Villanova won the championship as a No. 8 seed. In 2016, Syracuse became the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four, and last year, South Carolina made is as a No. 7. But even looking at data from more than 3 million entries in the past five years of the Capital One Bracket Challenge Game, it’s OK to miss those.
The top four finishers in 2011 only got half of of the Final Four right. The key was that they got the championship game (Butler vs. Connecticut) and champion (Connecticut) right. In 2013, the top five finishers all missed Wichita State.
What the data shows us is that it’s important to get later rounds right, but it’s better to go with higher seeds, because even if Cinderella dances, the likelihood of having that right plus the other three teams correct is not very high. It happens, but it's far from common. Of the 132 Final Four teams since 1991, just 13 (9.8 percent) have been seeded seventh or worse.
Good luck bracketing.